We hear a lot about “southern heritage” these days, especially with regard to the removal of monuments to Confederate generals and notables that appear in cities and towns all over the country. Given that the vast majority of such monuments were erected several decades after the Civil War at the height of Jim Crow in the South, but also in the heyday of anti-black ordinances in the North, it is clear that this monument-building had aims other than the expression of southern culture. So here’s my question: why are these statues and the Confederacy they represent so important to southern heritage? Given several hundred years of history, why put so much emphasis on the four years of the Confederacy? Why does the removal of Robert E. Lee and other generals from our public squares present such a threat? Do southerners have nothing else to fall back on? Hardly.
For those who like statues and monuments, don’t we still have southerners like George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson? Let’s take it a bit further. What about the great inventors and craftsmen of the South? Do we not have Nashville and country music; New Orleans and jazz–foundations of southern culture beloved by millions around the globe? Lots to be proud of there. What about the unique sub-regional cultures in Appalachia and the Creole regions of Louisiana (and many other places)? How about food? My god, what would America be without southern cuisine of all types? What about the writers and poets, the musicians and novelists and storytellers; the farmers and those who toiled in the fields and factories. Lots to celebrate there and, as far as I can tell, no one wants to suppress any of it. Quite the contrary.
And yes, we must also talk about slavery as an important element of southern heritage. It is an issue that was with us from the beginning, dividing north and south, eventually resulting in a hugely destructive civil war. Perhaps we should re-open the pages of that long history. Let us try to understand what it was like to be a slave on a plantation, to be treated according to the whims of a master, to be sold in a marketplace as a commodity. Let us learn about the decades-long struggle between slave and non-slave states for dominance. And when we re-open the pages of that history, let us also pay attention to the participation of northern society in slavery’s crimes. Let us talk about the financiers of the slave trade and the shipbuilders who made it possible. As we remove the statues of southern generals, let us also remove the names of northern supporters of slavery from university buildings and other institutions in New England and elsewhere.
Let us also finally come to terms with what this country–North and South–did to the first people who were here. This centuries-long genocide is also our history and our legacy.
We have a lot of culture in this country and a lot of history, although too many Americans are oblivious to it. So let’s do some digging in our hearts and in our public libraries. Let’s have a civil discussion. Let’s remove those confederate statues and put them in museums about the horrors of the Civil War. While we’re at it, let’s also remove statues of northern generals such as William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant from public places and put them in the same museums. Yes, these men prevailed in a just war to end slavery, but they visited much suffering on the South and have their own problematic legacy.
What do we replace all of these statues with? I am not a big fan of statues, but if we must have them, let’s pay tribute to our most beloved writers and poets, musicians and artisans, inventors and artists? We have a rich heritage in this country in all of our regions. Let’s pay tribute to it as we try once more to come to grips with the original sin that led to the Civil War and divides us still.